University gastronomy

"2022: It's not all good, but it got better!"

Andreas Dubiel - Head of University Gastronomy
Speed dating: new ways of recruiting. With temporary success!
Speed dating: new ways of recruiting. With temporary success!

In 5 refectories - 3 of them self-catering - and 7 cafeterias in Landau, Germersheim, Ludwigshafen, Neustadt an der Weinstraße and Worms, the Studierendenwerk catered to the 16,778 students and staff of all universities.

In 2022, we worked on the aftermath of the pandemic. And even though the topic is fortunately disappearing more and more from the news, the after-effects are still very present and are only now becoming really obvious. The last three years have not only brought digital teaching forward quickly, but they have also created a new status quo in which we have to find our way. No one in the network knows where the trend in refectories and cafeterias will go in the long term. Will everything be back to the way it used to be at some point? Was the pandemic the "turn of the times" for large-scale catering? Or will it take years for the system to settle down again?

Questions we put to Andreas Dubiel - the head of university gastronomy.

What was the most important thing for you in 2022?
In the years before, we had disappeared into insignificance, which was hard to bear. As partners of the universities, we were at the mercy of the universities' decisions. And there was a clear path of the universities: Digital teaching before hygiene concepts and face-to-face teaching. Of course, that is completely understandable, but we simply did not appear in the concept of digital teaching. My most important insight in 2022 was: We lost a few generations of students to the pandemic and digital teaching will probably remain an important factor at the universities, because there is no other way to explain the meal numbers in the refectories last year. Full lecture schedules, only slightly lower student numbers and just 52% of the meals in comparison to 2019. So the most important thing for me was and is to deal with a completely new higher education landscape and assess what that means for our future.

Nevertheless, we made the best of the time and all thought together about our future and initiated a change management process.

What was easy last year, what was difficult?
I can only repeat myself over and over again: The hardest thing was the issue of personnel. It was difficult, it is difficult and - in my opinion - it will remain difficult for quite a while. Despite massive attempts on all channels, despite spending a considerable budget and despite creative ideas like speed dating for service staff, we did not succeed in closing the staff gaps and had to keep smaller locations closed. The implosion of the catering industry has also had a direct impact on us. A race for the last employees on the empty labour market is underway and more and more attractive offers are being made in the industry to take on temporary gastronomic jobs. Of course, we can't keep up with that with our commitment to the collective agreement of the federal states. It feels like we are falling further and further behind in the race for new colleagues. In my opinion, the staff shortage is already threatening the Studierendenwerk's larger refectory locations.

Understandably, the resentment of those whose location is affected by the canteen closure is also growing. We urgently need support here, for example by temporarily relaxing the regulations in the collective agreement when hiring new workers. 80 per cent of my energy and the energy of my colleagues was spent on the issue of staff in 2022 - often with very frustrating results.

The second big obstacle for us is planning uncertainty. When I write my business plan, there are many more question marks or estimates in it than I would like. Through a combination of experience and luck, most of our budgeted figures have come true so far, but from a business perspective this cannot be a permanent state. We are miles away from planning certainty and this also interferes with our long-term, strategic thinking. A very concrete example might illustrate this: I have to hire staff for the new cafeterias, but I don't know when I'll need them because the completion dates of the construction projects are constantly being postponed.

But one should also look at the positive things. In 2022, it was much easier to serve the increasing number of meals. This gave us more room for manoeuvre for gastronomic projects - due to the still weak demand. The introduction of our very successful vegan food line at all locations, the digitalisation of our HACCP concept and the switch to digital cold storage monitoring all date to 2022. We used the time to become better, faster, more customer-friendly and more digital.

2022: everything back to normal, but why not the food figures?
There are several factors in this:
  • Student numbers have fallen.
  • Many campuses have retained hybrid models of teaching, this makes a big difference to both staff and students.
  • Several generations of first-year students have worked out their own catering concept during the closure of the refectories and have been lost to us as guests. For them, the equation Uni=Mensa simply didn't work out and I don't think we will be able to win back all of these generations of students.
  • Many students are no longer on campus all week, but often schedule their events in attendance so that they are only on campus Tuesday to Thursday. This has also significantly reduced the pressure to move to the place of study. I call this helicopter studying with your parents' second car. I know of some students who do it this way.

But our attitude is nevertheless positive: the guest curve is going up again, albeit much more slowly than expected. However, the two-to-three day week of hybrid teaching will probably keep us busy.

I don't have a crystal ball and don't know where it will go, but common sense suggests that mobile working will remain a strong motive in universities.

Where does the Studierendenwerk stand well?
According to the motto "less is more", we realised very early on that our proven two-menu system with the same menus at all locations is very beneficial to us and that we only had to increase prices very moderately. Many of my colleagues in the line of work see it the same way we do and are thinning out their food jungle. We have backed exactly the right horse - you don't necessarily need 5 menus. Where appropriate and where we don't harm ourselves, we offer a third line in our "Extra of the Day" from time to time as a special offer counter. This offer is perfectly adequate and is rated positively by the guests.

What is the status of the renovations and new buildings?
We are getting completely new refectories in Landau and Ludwigshafen and of course we very much hope that these new buildings and conversions will finally be completed, because the interim solutions are costing us a lot of time, a lot of energy and money. We are currently working under very difficult conditions at these locations. Especially the container kitchen in Landau is reaching its capacity limits. You almost have to be grateful for lower meal numbers.
But when they are finished, it will be a quantum leap for us in terms of infrastructure. I'm really looking forward to it.

What will time bring?
Whether the trend described above will continue remains to be seen. The aftermath of the "generation pandemic" that we lost gastronomically will probably continue to waft through university catering for quite a while.

But on the other hand, the Mensa has become much more attractive again, as our price increases have been much more moderate than in the industry as a whole. While the falafel around the corner now costs 7.50 euros instead of 4.50 euros before the pandemic, we have only increased our prices by 50 cents. This leads me to the conclusion: the university refectories have never been as cheap in relation to the gastronomic competition as it is today and is a real safety factor when it comes to good and cheap food. Absurd, but the pandemic has made the refectories unbeatably cheap. But I doubt whether that will be enough to bring the number of meals back to normal. The university catering thrives on an active campus, even if we are very happy about external guests. Hybrid teaching will remain the "enemy" of meal numbers in the future.

If I had a magic wand, what would you wish for your department?
Most of it has already been said, but I would still have one wish: more understanding from all our guests. The consequences of the multiple crises of the last few years are sometimes unacceptable. Here we ask for more understanding for the gastronomy and for the situation we were, are and will be in. The gastronomy industry is currently rebuilding itself and as it looks, it will become less rather than more. I would like to see more confidence that we are doing everything we can. I realise that everyone would like to put the hard times behind them, but for us the consequences are still very tangible.

What is a conclusion of the financial year?.
That's easy: we probably won't reach the state of 2019 again for the time being. 70 per cent is the new 100 per cent. I'll be honest: I think a return to old numbers in the next few years is very unlikely. The dent is deep and it will take time. Especially since it is impossible to predict how the higher education landscape will develop in the next few years. I only hope that our university partners will include us in their strategic planning, because otherwise the future will be fishing in the mud for us.

What is your forecast for the future?
After 2022, we are somewhat more optimistic about the future. Our cautious expectations for the financial year were fortunately exceeded. The fact that the new refectories are finally on the home straight also helps us. Provided there is not another crisis.

I am also pleased that the topic of "organic" is playing a more important role in politics. The Minister of Agriculture clearly says: "more organic"! Obviously we and the politicians have the same desire, but not yet the common path to more organic food.

We would like to see face-to-face meetings if we are really serious politically about the demand for more organic food. Then we could clarify the questions that are important: What exactly do you understand by organic? What exactly does sustainability look like for politicians? Who pays the extra costs for organic food: the canteen guest, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the Studierendenwerk?

Our statutory task of providing affordable food has always been feasible only with subsidies from the state. How would these subsidies have to change and who checks that only sustainably operating student unions receive more subsidies? We at the Studierendenwerk Vorderpfalz are happy to serve as a beacon of sustainable nutrition and are available for all discussions. We are happy to make our purchasing transparent. Then you will also see that we have already pushed the purchase of organic food to the limit in terms of business management, and that more is no longer financially possible without massive price adjustments.

So we think the same way as the politicians. Now we have to find a common way forward. I think this can only be done in an open dialogue with the large-scale caterers, otherwise it will be a paper tiger. And we have already had too many of those in the past.

Your contact person for the area
Andreas Dubiel
Head of University Catering
Xylanderstrasse 17
76829 Landau
Tel.: +49 6341 9179 140